Like the world’s largest house of cards, Washington D.C. is a city held together by tension and balance. Playing political capitol to the United States takes a hell of a poker face, and D.C. has learned to never blink. It’s a place where best intentions flirt with terrible means, where rank scandal dons a tasteful suit, and winning is everything.
These 12 must-sees in hotels in Washington DC are the brick and mortar backdrops to the politics. From assassination attempts to ignominious sex, the stories held in these halls range from the entertaining to the lethal. D.C. does everything, but it does everything with elegance and craft. A stay at any of these will show you what it’s like to be in the business of not getting caught.
When the first Japanese Ambassadors visited the United States in 1860, they stayed at the Willard Intercontinental and famously remarked that their room was of a higher quality than the U.S. Secretary of State’s house. That same decade, Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of “The Scarlet Letter,” cheekily commented that “the Willard Hotel more justly could be called the center of Washington than either the Capitol or the White House or the State Department.”
The Willard Intercontinental has hosted a laundry list of U.S. Presidents, from Lincoln and Grant to Taft and Coolidge. Whitman found the words to include the Willard in his verses and Mark Twain finished multiple books behind its walls.
In other words, the Willard Intercontinental is a keystone in the capitol; a place to woo ambassadors and impress the most notable guests with the finest hospitality D.C. can muster. However, if you have the ambition to join ranks with the international elite that have laid their heads at the Willard, you should be prepared to part with a few pennies. Prices at the Willard Intercontinental once prompted Vice President Thomas R. Marshall to suggest that “what this country needs is a good 5-cent cigar.”
During World War I, the Ottoman army drafted a young Armenian man named Mihran Mesrobian to fight Russians and Arabs in the Gallipoli Campaign. While the war raged, the Armenian Genocide enflamed, and Mesrobian’s family was deported and lost contact. Ultimately, Mesrobian lost fifteen family members to the atrocities of genocide.
In service, Mesrobian was captured by the Arabs, only to be freed with the help of T.E. Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia. With his new freedom, Mesrobian immigrated to the United States and became a prominent architect.
Enter the Carlton Hotel, now known as The St. Regis Washington DC Hotel. Characterized by its Beaux-Arts and Neo-Renaissance style, this historic hotel built in 1926 was Mesrobian’s first major work in D.C. Calvin Coolidge held the scissors at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, and every U.S. president since has visited. The St. Regis remains one the finer, yet more moderately priced, hotels in the district.
Like the St. Regis, The Hay-Adams was also designed by famed architect Mihran Mesrobian, although constructed two years later in 1928. An Italian-Renaissance design, this 145-room residential Washington DC hotel was built on the footprint of Lincoln’s secretary John Hay’s and Henry Adams’ 1885 homes. Thought by some to be haunted (link to Haunted Article) by the ghost of Henry’s wife, “Clover” Adams, the Hay-Adams nevertheless attracts consistent guests of healthy repute, including a two-week stay by the Obamas prior to Barrack’s inauguration.
Long known as a standard in luxury, the Hay-Adams impressed the city in 1930 when it installed the first air-conditioned dining room. Currently, their slogan reflects that attention to comfort and detail with the tongue-in-cheek statement the Hay-Adams is “Where nothing is overlooked but the White House.”
As part of the esteemed Autograph Collection (Possible link), The Mayflower Hotel delivers timeless elegance at peak of the international standard. Since its opening in 1925, The Mayflower has earned a reputation as a “Washington D.C. original…exactly like nothing else.”
An impressive portfolio of events has graced the halls of The Mayflower, including the National Geographic Society awarding Charles Lindbergh the Hubbard Medal in 1927, the 1933 penning of President Roosevelt’s famous line “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” in room 776, Harry Colmery’s 1943 drafting of the GI Bill in room 570, and even the embarrassment of Winston Churchill when his bad joke acoustically amplified for all to hear in the Chinese Room circa 1945.
Now, this landmark hotel invites guests to bask in the refinement of one of D.C.’s best.
Originally opened in 1918 as The Hotel Washington, The W Washington, D.C. is a ten-story, Beaux-Arts design, and the only design in D.C. from architectural firm Carrère and Hastings. Known now as a crossroads for power-plays and parties, this hotel boasts a place in film and music history. (Link to Music Article) The rooftop, since converted to a luxury bar, served as a film site for scenes from “The Godfather: Part II,” and legend has that Elvis’ infamous meeting to petition President Nixon for an FBI badge was organized while the King stayed at the W Washington, D.C.
Part military base of operations, journalism hub, the history of the Washington Marriot Wardman Park is mixed between secrecy and publicity. The largest hotel in the city, it opened in 1918, at the end of World War I, but got in the action of World War II when it served as a base to British spy “Cynthia” while she covertly exchanged documents with the French Vichy Embassy. In the 1940’s, Marine Reserves visited the Washington Marriot Wardman Park for an unconventional training that involved swimming in the hotel pool fully-clothed.
After World War II, the Washington DC hotel shifted its service from military to media, and won notoriety when its Wardman Tower was used to broadcast the first televised episode of NBC’s “Meet the Press” in 1947.
The things a man will do to impress Jodie Foster! Winning the heart of the star actress was the alleged impetus behind John Hinckley Jr.’s attempt on President Reagan’s life. While Reagan was leaving the Washington Hilton after a 1981 speech, Hinckley Jr. managed to shoot Reagan non-fatally in the lung.
This story remains the most recounted event in the Washington Hilton’s history, and even won it the colloquial nickname “Hinckley Hilton.” However, this imposingly large convention hotel has hosted an impressive list of events, from the White House Correspondents Dinners to ballroom musical performances by Jimi Hendrix and The Doors.
Easily the most infamous Washington DC hotel, if not the world, The Watergate became synonymous with political scandal after being the site at which five men in conspiracy with the Nixon administration burgled the DNC headquarters in 1972.
Rather than shirk this legacy, the Watergate today has leaned into its reputation, claiming that controversy lives at its core. This claim is founded upon the hotel’s unconventional, curvaceous architectural design that invited criticism upon its 1965 opening.
Having undergone several renovations since the 1980’s, the Watergate exists now as a posh and modern luxury hotel, bent on embracing its history for drama and spotlight.
Built in 1930, the Omni Shoreham famously held the 1933 first inaugural ball of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Attentive to the needs of the polio-stricken and wheelchaired president, the hotel installed ramps and specially designed elevators in accommodation. Since then, the Omni Shoreham has become the go-to for inaugural balls, hosting one for every president of the 20th century.
Famously, or infamously depending who you ask, Bill Clinton played saxophone for guests of his inaugural ball at the Omni Shoreham in 1993.
Other notable guests include the residency of Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington, who during the late 40’s and 50’s, often hosted all-night poker games with President Truman.
During their first American tour in 1964, the Beatles took the entire seventh floor of the Omni Shoreham, and later that year, The New Journeymen, soon to be renamed The Mamas & The Papas, performed their first show at the hotel.
Now recognized as both a historic hotel and entertainment venue, the Omni Shoreham ranks easily among the best Washington DC hotels.
Compared to the large luxury hotels elsewhere on this list, the Morrison Clark Inn is enigmatically quaint and intimate.
Originally two separate townhouses owned in 1864 by David Morrison and Reuben Clark, the two merged under a new Shanghai roof to form a mansion and enlisted club. Every First Lady from Grace Coolidge to Nancy Reagan has sat as an honorary chairwoman to the club, though the tradition has since fallen out of vogue.
Now restored to the tastes of a Victorian inn, this small, charming getaway offers a side of D.C. not readily available in the greater metropolis.
Debuting originally as a luxury residential building in 1923, by 1955 The Jefferson converted to one of D.C.’s most elegant hotels. Aptly decorated, rooms in the Jefferson include custom-made draperies depicting Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s ancestral home. The library is stocked with a collection of Jefferson’s favorite reading, and the dining room utilizes one of Jefferson’s inventions, the dumbwaiter, to supply diners with wine from the cellar.
As the Founding Father with the most publicly scorned sex life, it is fitting that The Jefferson hotel should also be publicly revealed as the once preferred rendezvous point between escort Sherry Rowlands and Clinton strategist Dick Morris. Allegedly, Morris would invite Rowlands to listen in on phone calls with the President while he sucked her toes. Classy!
Erected by Washington Monument designer Robert Mills, this 1839 Neo-classical construction originally served as the General Post Office. Modeled after the Roman Temple of Jupiter, this four-story building was the first all-marble structure in D.C.
Now a National Historic Landmark, the grand architecture of this plot was renovated into the Hotel Monaco by the Kimpton brand in 2002. Determined to idiosyncratically blend contemporary style with ancient architecture, rooms in the Monaco boast bold color, vaulted ceilings, playful light fixtures, and a fish tank…for which a complimentary goldfish is provided at check-in.